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Literature / Symposium

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Symposium is a dialogue by Plato, supposedly the account of a symposium or "drinking party" that was hosted by Agathon many years before Plato's report and featured a discussion on the nature of Eros, the god of love (or love personified). It begins with an utterly convoluted frame story where we learn Apollodorus, our gracious narrator, heard it from Aristodemus, who was there but drunk and only remembers some of the speeches with certainty. He also claims to have corroborated Aristodemus's story with Socrates himself, and that Apollodorus only just told the story to Glaucon the other day and he'll only tell it again if the unnamed listener really really insists.

So if we hear it from Plato, who heard it from Apollodorus's listener (or is Apollodorus's listener), who heard it from Apollodorus, who heard it from Aristodemus who witnessed it a couple decades before, it's at the very least a third generation account.

Discounting Aristodemus's run in with Socrates, the topic proposal by Eriximachus and all the flirting, the speakers are as follows: Phaedrus, Pausanius, Eriximachus, Aristophanes, Agathon, Socrates (and Diotima), and Alcibiades, who like everyone else at this point is utterly sloshed. It doesn't seem to affect the eloquence of their speeches, though.

Symposium contains examples of:

  • Alcohol Hic: Aristophanes has to put off his speech because of an alcohol-induced hiccup until after Eriximachus.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Alcibiades laments that Socrates is dodging his advances, even while making a point to seat himself next to the most handsome man in the room (Agathon).
  • Battle Couple: Phaedrus' proposes that the army would be better if it were made up of paired lovers.
  • Frame Story: The recounting of the symposium is itself a story being told by Apollodorus as part of a conversation.
  • Get Thee to a Nunnery: Today, the word "symposium" conveys a dull meeting of academic colleagues. In its original meaning, and the one used here, it meant a party with lots of drinking. "Symposium" literally means "drinking together".
  • "Just So" Story: Aristophanes' famous discourse on why people seek mates. His mythical story tells that humans were once four-armed, four-legged and had two faces. There were three genders, the all-male, the hermaphrodites and the all-females. These beings were very strong and waged war against the Olympian Gods. As punishment, the gods split each of them in two. The all-males became homosexual men, the hermaphrodites became heterosexual men and women, and the all-females became lesbians. People yearn for love because they are instinctively seeking their missing half. The tale is notable as the (current) Ur-Example of the concept of soul mates. Agathon and Pausanias are held up as an example of successfully finding one's other half.
  • Master of the Mixed Message: Socrates to Alcibiades. The latter is quite enamored of the former, who somewhat ambiguously rebuffs his advances. Admittedly, Socrates was scoping out Agathon at the time...
  • Original Man: According to Aristophanes' speech on the origin of love, as original created by the titans humans were not like we are today. We had two heads, four legs, four arms and both sets of reproductive organs. The later gods changed us to be more like them (which is better than what they considered doing). The idea was to make us wish for the parts we no longer had and supposed to teach us love.
  • The Power of Love: Phaedrus, Socrates, Aristodemus, others. A recurring theme is that love is a motivator to human action, and often heroism.
  • Pretty Boy: Agathon, to an almost legendary degree. Aristophanes was prone to depict him as a Camp Gay in his own writings.
  • Second-Hand Storytelling: Apollodorus, the narrator, was not present at the dinner party, and supposedly got the story from those who were there and is now recounting it to someone else. Keeping in mind that actual author, Plato, is using Apollodorus as a narrator within the story, the whole thing is at least three steps removed from the actual event.
  • Women Are Wiser: Socrates tells the others of his meeting with Diotima, a woman who told him of the essence of Love, and how it should be defined. This narration is often reckoned to be the climax of the entire book. The trope is played straight because Socrates acknowledges that Diotima was wiser than he was, and she even lampshaded it herself.